1. A series of events took place
recently demonstrating that the foundation of Japan’s democracy has become fairly
fragile. Particularly noteworthy are the issue surrounding the Emperor’s
political role and lawmakers’ approach to it.
2. Under the Constitution, the
Emperor is the “symbol of the State and of the unity of the people” and “shall
not have powers related to the government.” Japan’s imperial system is a
constitutional monarchy in which the monarch “reigns but does not govern.”
3. However, Emperor Akihito and
Empress Michiko have indeed been issuing political messages quite frequently —
in ways that can only be inferred from between the lines.
4. One example is the remark made by
the Empress about the Constitution during a news conference on Oct. 20 marking
her 79th birthday. “It seems to me that this year ... we saw more active
discussion regarding the Constitution than in previous years,” the Empress
said, and went on to talk about some constitutional drafts created by members
of the “freedom and civil rights movements” before the Meiji Constitution was
promulgated in 1889. She characterized those drafts as a “rare cultural asset
in the world as a document of how ordinary citizens in Japan had
already developed an awareness of civil rights at the end of the 19th century.”
5. The “active discussion” can be
interpreted to refer to the debate about revising the Constitution as pursued
by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The remarks by the Empress
can also be interpreted as her implicit assertion that freedom and democracy
are the values that represent the tradition of modern Japan.
6. The Emperor meanwhile visited
Prefecture, in October — the
place where the Minamata disease, the worst industrial pollution in Japanese
history, broke out. The victims have for long faced discrimination and many of
them have been denied official recognition by the government as patients of the
disease, thus left out from public relief measures.
7. Speaking in front of such people,
the Emperor said he would like to work toward “creating a society where people
can live upholding the truth.” The remark can be interpreted as the Emperor’s
objection to a statement made just before his speech by Abe, who told an
international conference on the Minamata Convention on Mercury that Japan
“overcame” the Minamata disease.
8. Novelist Genichiro Takahashi, in his
commentary in the Oct. 31 issue of the Asahi Shimbun on recent opinion articles,
quoted the Empress’ words on the Constitution and said he highly values the
remarks. It is quite unusual that statements by members of the imperial family
are taken up in such a newspaper column.
9. On the same day, Upper House member
Taro Yamamoto handed a letter to the Emperor during a garden party hosted by
the Imperial couple, in which he reportedly tried to tell of the plight suffered
by people who are affected by the Fukushima
nuclear disaster, and was widely criticized for his act.
10. Both Takahashi and Yamamoto take a
liberal or progressive political position and oppose the Abe administration’s
agenda to revise the Constitution and restart
of nuclear power plants. And the two events that happened on that same day
indicate that progressive-minded people in Japan have
rely on the Emperor’s authority to justify their own arguments.
11. I myself was moved by the words of the
Emperor and the Empress. The imperial couple has now become the symbol not only
of the unity of people but also of postwar democracy. During a ceremony
organized by the Abe administration on April 28 to mark an anniversary of the
day that Japan regained independence from postwar occupation with the San
Francisco Peace Treating going into force, participants shouted “Tenno Heika
Banzai!” (Long Live the Emperor!) when the Emperor showed an expression of
apparent bewilderment. This indicates that there is a gap between the values
symbolized by Emperor Akihito and the ideological direction of the Abe
12. However, it is a no-no to use or
rely on the authority of the Emperor because it is not known what political
values the persons who accede to the throne of the Emperor in the future will have.
Political debate must be made in the Diet,
and in the realm of civil society. How people evaluate the Emperor’s messages
should be kept personal. If people start competing with each other to resort to
an absolute authority when they make political remarks, it would lead to the
collapse of freedom of speech.
13. The situation in which opinion leaders in
the progressive camp feel like relying on the authority of the Emperor points
to a serious crisis of democracy. The flip side of this situation is the
absence of a reliable opposition party in Japan’s parliamentary democracy. Although
nearly a year has passed since falling from power, the Democratic Party of
Japan, the No. 1 opposition party, is still unable to adopt a political direction
that squarely puts the party in confrontation with the Liberal Democratic
14. In the current Diet session, the
Abe administration is pushing for a set of legislations that aim to strengthen its
power, such as a bill to protect special state secrets and a bill to create the
Japanese version of the National Security Council. But the DPJ continues to
take only a vague stance on these moves.
15. Objectively speaking, the only viable
political direction for the DPJ to take should be positioning itself to the
left of the LDP and seek support from middle-of-the-road citizens. However, the
party continues to be a mix of progressive and conservative members, who spend
so much energy trying to build consensus among themselves that they are unable
to put up a resolute stance to challenge the government and the ruling parties.
16. There are moves within the
opposition camp to build an alliance or seek realignment of parties to fight
the dominant force of the overwhelming ruling parties. But Nippon
Ishin-no-kai (Japan Restoration Party), the No.2 opposition party, is more
right-leaning than the LDP and it is meaningless for the DPJ to work together
with this party.
17. Before exploring a realignment of
opposition parties, DPJ members must fully discuss the party’s political
direction among themselves — without fearing an internal division that could lead
to breaking up of the party — and determine which course the party should take.
Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hokkaido University.
Japan Times, November 23